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Planning key to choosing the right maritime satellite system

Nov 25, 2013 03:37 PM
A terminal manufactured by JRC, aboard a containership.

Courtesy Inmarsat

A terminal manufactured by JRC, aboard a containership.

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A few years ago, the Dutch shipping giant Vroon BV decided to rethink its communications strategy.

The company, which owns 160 ships and employs about 4,000 mariners worldwide, was experiencing problems with its onboard computer networks, including viruses and unapproved changes.

Vroon’s onboard satellite communications systems also needed an upgrade. The company, based in the seaside town of Breskens, used several satellite providers and had different types of terminals installed across its fleet of box ships, tankers, supply vessels, livestock carriers and car carriers. It faced unpredictable and sometimes high satellite data costs.

Based on business trends, Vroon’s managers wanted the bandwidth to allow for better monitoring while at sea and more integration between its ships and the home office. Ensuring bandwidth was available for crew, Internet use during long sea voyages was another priority.

Vroon decided early that its own in-house technicians would not manage the new system.

“As opposed to continue managing it ourselves, we have decided to search the market and to take advantage of proven and tested maritime solutions,” Johan Verhegge, Vroon’s manager of ICT infrastructure, said in a PowerPoint presentation given earlier this year at the Digital Ship Conference in Bergen, Norway.

Deciding which satellite firm to partner with, and what type of system to install on the large and varied fleet, was not as easy.

Courtesy Inmarsat

A below-decks unit, handset and cradle, part of an Inmarsat FleetBroadband 150 system.

Indeed, as demand for more and faster data at sea continues to grow, maritime operators large and small are facing a similar dilemma, said satellite industry consultant Alan Gottlieb, head of Gottlieb International Group, in a phone interview.

Many shippers want to upgrade their aging systems to faster, more advanced technology, but some are waiting until the shipping market picks up, he said. At the same time, more and more companies that got by without satellite terminals until now are giving satellite a fresh look, in part because modern systems offer greater operational efficiencies and costs have fallen sharply.

Nevertheless, trying to sift through competing providers, options, plans and pricing can be daunting. The choices are only expected to grow more difficult with Inmarsat’s planned launch of a next-generation network expected in late 2014 and Iridium’s NEXT network that’s expected to be operational a few years down the road.

“If you think this is complicated (for you), just imagine the poor ship owners,” Gottlieb said.

Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband has been the go-to system for years for satellite voice and data, and the company said it is installed as the primary or backup satellite system on about 40,000 vessels worldwide. Although the company’s L-band service is extremely reliable in bad weather, it doesn’t work in Arctic or Antarctic regions. Pricing and download speeds, which range from 150 to 500 Kbps, depend on the type of package chosen and the amount of bandwidth requested.

Iridium’s OpenPort and Pilot systems, which also operate on an L-band frequency, are equally reliable and offer truly global coverage, including the poles. Like Inmarsat, pricing will vary by how much the operator wants to pay and what type of service they want. However, Iridium’s baseline data download speeds are only about 128 Kbps.

A third option for maritime voice and data is VSAT, which emerged on the maritime market only about five years ago. These systems, which typically operate on a Ku-band frequency, are sold by third-party suppliers such Marlink, Globecomm Systems, KVH Industries and numerous others around the world. Many VSAT systems offer data download speeds of 1 Mbps and up, but the signal is highly susceptible to rain-fade — or interference from heavy rains common when sailing in the tropics.

These third-party suppliers typically buy maritime Ku-band capacity from satellite owners and then manage that capacity among their subscribers. Most suppliers also sell value-added packages that include advanced software, data management and other services.

“With VSAT, they are selling you a system and that system consists of bandwidth, software to manage that bandwidth, software to control usage by the crew, software and hardware to switch between IP solutions on the vessel as needed and software to go in and take a look at what bandwidth you’re getting,” said Gottlieb. “It’s all part of integrating the system to the end user.”

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